Allow me to briefly indulge my strong affection for Neoplatonism since the subject came up in the story and in the discussion.
It should be noted that, until very recently, Neoplatonism was viewed with great suspicion, if it was viewed at all. There was something dangerous about it.
In 1908, Cornford concluded his book 'From Religion to Philosophy' with a warning that Aristotle's contemplative life was one step removed from “the mystical trance" of Neoplatonic “ecstasy” in which “Thought denies itself; and Philosophy, sinking to the close of her splendid curving flight, folds her wings and drops into the darkness whence she arose—the gloomy Erebus of theurgy and magic.” This characterization was well within the mainstream of the period.
For at least two centuries, there was great hostility towards perceived eclecticism and syncretism. The Platonists of Late Antiquity were thought to have fallen away from the purity of Plato. Neoplatonism integrated disparate strands of Hellenistic philosophy. It drew on alien texts like the Chaldean Oracles. Its adherents came to embrace theurgy, whereby ritual actions were undertaken to enter into divine activity--this was maligned as vulgar magic.
That many of the later Platonists had Eastern backgrounds didn't help. After the closing of the Platonic Academy in Athens in 529, we are told the following philosophers were forced to leave the city: Damascius the Syrian, Simplicius the Cilician, Eulamius the Phrygian, Priscianus the Lydian, Hermias and Diogenes from Phoenicia, and Isidore of Ghaza.
Here we might look at E. R. Dodds who really kicked off the reappraisal of Neoplatonism with his article The Parmenides of Plato and the Origin of the Neoplatonic 'One' in 1928. There wasn't much of a reaction at first, but by the 50's other scholars had taken note. By the late 60's, Neoplatonism had almost become a respectable area of study.
I mention Dodds here for another reason too. He was very interested in the supernatural and the occult. His article 'Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity' is full of choice tidbits of some relevance like this passage on communication with the dead:
The possibility of communication with the dead was seldom denied save by Epicureans and sceptics, but the prevalent pattern of belief did not encourage it. On the orthodox pagan view only the unquiet dead-those who had died untimely or by violence, or had failed of due burial-were earthbound and available. And since these were thought to be angry and dangerous spirits, their company was not as a rule desired; those who sought it were suspect of exploiting it for the unholy purpose of magical aggression.
Or this footnote about ghosts:
The tradition that earthbound spirits haunt their place of death or of burial is as old as Plato (Phaedo 81 c-d) and doubtless far older. It persisted throughout Antiquity and survived the advent of Christianity (cf., e.g., Origen, c. Cels. 7.5; Lactantius, div. inst. 2.2.6). The prototypical tale is that told by the younger Pliny (Epist. 7.27.4 ff.) of a haunted house at Athens and reproduced by Lucian (Philopseudes 3of.) with a different location and a few additional horrors. For other haunted houses see Plutarch apud schol. Eur. Alc. I I28 (the Brazen House at Sparta); Plutarch, Cimon I (house at Chaeronea, said still to produce 'alarming sights and sounds' in Plutarch's day); and Suetonius, Caligula 59.
Haha, two years is practically yesterday, so I'll see what I can do. This article certainly looks very interesting.
He's been on a few podcasts before, so he may be open to the idea.
The last thing he wrote directly related to what I've been talking about was an article called 'Platonic Tantra: Theurgists of Late Antiquity' which was published in 2017. (Does a two-year-old paper count as recent in academia?) It can be seen online here: https://www.academia.edu/37897872/Platonic_Tantra.pdf
Here's the abstract:
Scholarship on Iamblichean theurgy has changed profoundly in the last thirty years. No longer dismissed as a distortion of Greek philosophy, theurgy is now recognized by most scholars as a complement—even culmination—to the disciplines of rational reflection. Yet resistance to recognizing the full implications of living in a theurgic cosmos continues. Although the gods of theurgy penetrate the material realm and theurgists embodied these gods in ritual and aesthetic experience, we continue to imagine the goal of theurgy as escaping from matter and ascending to noetic fire. A residual and often unconscious dualism influences our thinking. Theurgists were athletes of divine fire, but the fire is here, on earth, and the gods are revealed, Iamblichus says, “by our physical eyes.” Iamblichean theurgy represents a radically non-dual orientation that incorporates the body into divine experience. In this sense theurgy closely resembles the tantric non-dualism of South Asian yoga traditions. I explore the consequences of living in a non-dual cosmos and present Platonic theurgy as the Tantra of the West.
The first half of the article goes over the role of theurgy in Neoplatonism and contrasts Plotinian and Iamblichean mystagogies. The second half points to parallels in Indian philosophy and religion. It's all very interesting.
I hadn't heard of Gregory Shaw, but I've just looked him up and I'm surprised I've never run into him at a conference. I haven't looked deeply yet, but it's not clear that he's published anything recently, but if he has I might try to get him to talk with me on Agnus.
Plotinus was the first Neoplatonist to gain wider acceptance in the modern world. For some, Plotinus' aloofness towards traditional pagan religion made him tolerable. (He'd famously told his pupil Amelius "The gods ought to come to me, not I to them." when invited to visit some temples. His student Porphyry was likewise appreciated for his skepticism towards theurgy. This played well with agnostics and devout anti-pagans alike.
Others were drawn by the mystical language. Here's a characteristic passage from Plotinus:
"There is no poverty or lack of resource there, but all things filled and as it were boiling with life. There is as it were a flow of them from one spring ... as if there were some one quality having and preserving all qualities in itself, of sweetness with fragrance, and at once winelike quality and the powers of all tastes and the sights of colors and the things that touches know; and there stand the things that hearings hear, all tunes and every rhythm."
There was a newfound academic interest in mysticism after WWII, and Plotinus was seen by some as an antecedent to the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages.
The Christian connection motivated much of the renewed interest in Neoplatonism in the 60's and in the decades that followed. Neoplatonism was seen as a sort of missing link between the pagan world and the Medieval world. Neoplatonic beliefs lived on to shape Christian theology through figures like Augustine, and there was also the matter of Aristotle. Most of the surviving commentaries on Aristotle were written by late Platonists. Understanding the Medieval reception of Aristotle required an understanding of Neoplatonism.
Plotinus was getting most of the attention though. It really wasn't until the late 90's, after Gregory Shaw published his great 'Theurgy and the Soul' that Iamblichus, and later Neoplatonists, gained wider recognition as serious philosophers.
Before that, Plotinus and Porphyry were somewhat artificially kept apart from all the other Neoplatonists who were understood to be more concerned with theurgy, and so unworthy of serious attention.
There's an old academic book review from 1997 that speaks to this division:
"But there often still remains an inability properly to interpret the ancient distinction between those "Neoplatonists" who followed what was sometimes dubbed a "philosophical" path (Plotinus and Porphyry), and the followers and successors of Iamblichus who were said to be more "theological." The usual approach is to think of the Iamblicheans as retaining certain "philosophical" features from Plotinus while more generally exhibiting a decadent if not "Oriental" falling away into magic and superstition."
These days, it's not uncommon to see theurgy described as something akin to Catholic sacramental theology. Shaw pointed the way here with statements like this:
“This theurgical vision shaped the thinking of later Platonists such as Syrianus, Proclus, and Damascius, and its influence also extended beyond Platonic circles and may well be reflected in the sacramental theology of Christian thinkers. Indeed, the Church, with its ecclesiastical embodiment of the divine hierarchy, its initiations, and its belief in salvation through sacramental acts, may have fulfilled the theurgical program of Iamblichus in a manner that was never concretely realized by Platonists. In a sense that has yet to be examined, the Church may well have become the reliquary of the hieratic vision and practices of the later Platonists.”
The figure of Dionysius is key here. Elsewhere Shaw notes that:
"Augustine’s demonization of theurgy stands in stark contrast to Dionysius the Areopagite who spoke of theurgy as an integral part of the sacramental life of the church."
This couldn't be more timely! I've just finished rereading this story over my morning coffee because next week Brent and I recording an episode of Hanging Out With the Dream King in which a character quotes the opening paragraph. I'm not sure there's much more going on with the quotation, but I wonder if there might not be a Neoplatonic reading of Gaiman's Sandman universe.
My experience with Neoplatonism comes entirely through late antique Christian bishops, and Augustine especially. This is something that I only was really exposed to in grad school when I took a seminar with the scholar largely responsible for rekindling interest in this period, and he wrote THE book on Augustine in the 1960s. But I never realized that there had been something of a stigma against Neoplatonism until then. I'm sure Brandon would blame this on the Englightenment.